Unexpected changes mark turnaround for women’s basketball seniors

Women’s basketball seniors Chakecia Miller and Bria Bourgeois have known each other since seventh grade and their years as high school standouts in Atlanta’s suburbs.

They started as friendly rivals – Miller claims she was “so sick the ref had to hand me a cough drop” the one time Bourgeois’ Walton High School Raiders lost to her Campbell High School Spartans. But by the time they learned they would be classmates at GW, they had grown close enough that their fathers would talk about all they would accomplish as teammates.

The two probably didn’t anticipate that, during their four years at GW, they would watch the program go through a coaching overhaul, see Bourgeois’ career ended by a series of injuries, or witness their team climb from the Atlantic 10 basement to the top of the conference and into the national rankings.

“It’s just funny because our freshman year we would never have dreamed or thought of something like this happening,” Miller said. “Looking back on where we came [from], where we ended is really amazing. To be here during that transition of the program is really incredible.”

Adjusting to new leadership
The two arrived freshman year and settled in as roommates. Off the court, living together made them “cooler than [we] ever were,” Miller said, but the team won just 11 games under head coach Mike Bozeman. At the end of the season, the coach who had recruited them was fired and his entire assistant coaching staff would not return their sophomore year.

After she arrived still rehabbing a torn ACL and then a fractured thumb, Bourgeois had only played in five games as a freshman. So the change hit Miller the hardest because she wasn’t sure whether new head coach Jonathan Tsipis would like her game.

“I got comfortable with one coach and him believing in me,” Miller said. “And when the coaching change happened and it was like I was being recruited all over again, and you have to prove to this new coach that you can do this.”

But little by little, the two earned each other’s trust. Miller had been a talented but erratic defender, and Tsipis pushed her to be more consistent by reminding her how much the team needed her on the back end. When the team broke even in conference play and Miller won her first A-10 tournament game at the end of her sophomore season, she started to buy in.

Miller said she noticed a shift in culture her sophomore year as well. She said the team adopted more of a “championship mentality,” and that Tsipis set higher expectations for the effort she and her teammates needed to put into practice every day.

“They had that understanding and remembrance of what things were like before, the end of their freshmen year, here comes the whole new staff and everything. It allows them together to have a greater appreciation of things and also know that I was never going to let them be comfortable,” Tsipis said. “I was always going to challenge them to be better.”

Every year, there was some kind of new “first.” The team won 14 games when Miller and Bourgeois were sophomores, including the pair’s first A-10 tournament win. Junior year, they made the postseason for the first time, getting to the Sweet 16 of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. Senior year, they finally made it back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2008.

“We really weren’t used to doing so well, like winning so many games,” Bourgeois said. “When we first came here our freshman year, we won like 11 games, so just to see us make progress over time, that in itself means that our last year was the best because we did win so many championships.”

Finding a new role off the court
But as the team’s successes grew, it seemed each new year came with a new setback for Bourgeois. The June after freshman year, she’d torn her ACL again and was out for the season. Bourgeois had been the top wing player in the state of Georgia and ESPN HoopGurlz had ranked her the No. 24 wing player as a two-time high school MVP, but she had played just 27 minutes as a Colonial.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Cameron Lancaster | Photo Editor
Senior guard Chakecia Miller averged 6.9 points and 2.5 rebounds per game during her senior season, when the Colonials won a program-record 29 games, an 18-win improvement from Miller’s freshman season.

She didn’t know then that those 27 minutes would be the extent of her GW career on the hardwood. When Bourgeois tore her ACL for a third time the following June, playing pickup in the Lerner Health and Wellness Center, she began to feel like her college basketball career just wasn’t meant to be.

“It was hard because it was just making it official. I had to sign papers saying that I am medically [disqualified], so it was hard,” Bourgeois said. “It was hard to say, ‘Wow, I am really done with something I’ve been doing my whole life.’”

But Miller, who said she was present for all of Bourgeois’ injuries, helped her friend keep a positive attitude while adjusting to a new role on the team.

“I was always right there. I got my phone and I was on the phone with her mom, and I think it got to the point that the last time I called and her mom said, ‘What happened to Bria?’ because it happened so many times. It’s just come to the point where me and Bri look at each other and start laughing. She’s hurt and getting rolled out on the stretcher and she is laughing,” Miller said. “I didn’t have to keep trying to say, ‘Bria, it’s going to be OK.’ I had to do that when it first happened, but after that, it was an easier transition because she accepted her role like a boss.”

Instead of contributing on the court, Bourgeois became a cheerleader during games and a mentor to her teammates. Watching every home game from the sidelines, she could give her friends advice from a coach’s perspective. Miller said she turned to Bourgeois during the season when she wanted a peer to analyze her game.

She’s also acted as an ambassador for the team, presenting the MVP award at the Georgey’s last year and frequenting other teams’ games on campus. Bourgeois was the co-recipient of the Team Spirit Award at the end of her sophomore year, when she also won the Georgey for Best Student-Athlete in a Supporting Role.

A friendship becomes a motivator
Miller in particular leaned on Bourgeois during games when Miller said she would “get down on” herself. The two even made a hand signal – Bourgeois would sweep her hand in front of her face and pull her fingers together to signal that Miller should shrug off her frustrations on the court.

“During a couple games, I would ask her, ‘OK, did I really play that back?’ or ‘How did it look?’ and I would tell Bria even during the A-10 tournament, ‘Look, don’t let me get mad. If I get mad, then do something to give me a sign,’” Miller said. “And we had a little symbol, and with that I knew to fix my face and keep moving.”

Over the course of three years coaching the pair, Tsipis learned to use their reliance on each other to his – and the team’s – advantage. He said he’d talk to Miller to encourage Bourgeois when he wanted her to do a little better academically, and that he’d tell Bourgeois to challenge Miller to up her production during games.

“To get the best out of one, I had to be able to challenge the other one to help bring that out,” Tsipis said.

In the Colonials’ 80-45 win over George Mason on Senior Day on March 1, Miller scored just four points but shot 50 percent and dished out five assists in her final game on the Smith Center court. Bourgeois, as she always does, sat in her street clothes on the sideline. But before the game, for the first time, Bourgeois sang the national anthem in front of the crowd.

The team had been trying to get her to perform for the past two years, looking to involve her in a different element on game day, Tsipis said, but it was Miller who finally convinced her to do it on Senior Day.

Nineteen days later, Miller and Bourgeois’ Colonials wrapped the most successful season in program history. In four years they’d posted a +18 win differential, jumped to No. 19 in the national rankings and won the A-10 tournament.

Still, Tsipis said he thinks when they look back on their time in college, some of Miller and Bourgeois’ fondest memories will be of the difficulties they helped each other overcome.

“They were challenged mentally and physically more than anyone else,” Tsipis said. “It’s a credit to the kind of kids they were to stick with things.”

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